Making sales in any business can be hard enough, but converting repulsion into sales is even harder. Armed with cricket flour protein bars in hand, Exo has taken on this challenge.
Founded in a Brown University dorm room by Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz in 2013, Exo is trying to convince people that ‘crickets are the new kale.’ Their protein bars are not only healthy and super nutritious, but the cricket flour adds a sustainable punch of protein. Despite these key selling points, Exo is still fighting an uphill battle to convince consumers to start eating insects.
A bit like the uphill battle I seem to face constantly in the chemistry lab, trying to get the reaction I want and avoid all the other possibilities. Take this molecule.
Swapping out the chloride for something else seems pretty simple right? Wrong. Instead of an easy swap, the much more reactive -OH (alcohol) reacts, and you end up with a bunch of products you don’t want.
Luckily, chemists have outsmarted the alcohols, devising a sneaky method to get the outcome they want. They use protecting groups. These are unique molecules that bind to the most reactive group (like the alcohol) stopping it from reacting. This forces the other group (like the chloride) to react instead, giving a chemoselective reaction.
These protecting groups have a lot in common with Exo’s nifty approach to marketing and branding. By carefully presenting themselves and their product, Exo manages to protect their audience from their first super reactive “ugh – I hate insects” response. This leaves open the less reactive option, “yum – insects are fantastic!” and with it, the potential for sales.
Despite cricket flour being their main selling point, Exo manages to keep their product separate from the ‘creepy-crawly’ nature of crickets. Although, “Made from Cricket Flour” is written front and centre on the bars, there are no cricket images to be found. Not an insect to be seen on their instagram. Instead, they give off a healthy, scientific vibe. Their packaging has an almost lab manual look. They use statistics and infographics to convince people of the advantages of eating crickets.
Now, if your molecule was to have a more reactive bromide instead of a chloride, getting the ideal reaction would be that bit faster and easier. Likewise, Exo started strategically, pitching and testing their product amongst regulars at the local CrossFit gym. These early adopters were keen to build muscle and boost their protein, and so were more reactive to the scientific benefits than the gross factor of insects.
Unfortunately, if a protecting group only gets your product a measly 2% of the time, it’s not really good enough. The closer to 100% the better. In the laboratory the yield is often not immediately obvious, instead a series of tests are needed to find the purity.
In the business world this yield of success can easily be measured with key metrics like sales and profits. If Exo’s marketing strategies and branding had been unsuccessful, they would have had only a handful of customers. They would have been an unsustainable business. But luckily, their protecting group approach has given a high yield. In their first production run they sold out of all 50,000 bars within weeks. With growing demand, they’ve expanded their channels to include online sales, subscriptions and stockists in wholefood stores.
A good protecting group should be effective in a variety of reaction conditions, so for Exo this meant that hard core gym bunnies alone, are not enough.
But by pitching from a variety of angles, from sustainability, to protein, to vitamin content, they have managed to appeal to a broader market. This was evident in their first Kickstarter campaign in 2013. Shooting past their initial goal, they raised a huge $54,911 USD. Since then, they have gone on to raise a total of $5.6 million USD. With only a few early adopters this would not have been possible.
Temperature can cause havoc on reactions and the resulting products, especially if the protecting group is unstable. But Exo have taken advantage of the heat of the media. With such a controversial product, media scrutiny has the potential to do more harm than good. But Exo have made this heat work for them, with coverage in publications like Forbes, TIME, and National Geographic being used to open a dialogue on entomophagy and ignite interest in their product.
Protecting groups also have to be resilient, because acid has the potential to strip back a molecule, leaving it unrecognisable and prone to an unwanted reaction.
Exo also had to ensure that despite their marketing, their product had a solid scientific backing and could withstand attack. Luckily, their insect eating approach has been supported by a 200 page UN report, making it all the more difficult for them to be undermined by factual discrepancies.
In a chemical reaction, the protective group can eventually be removed, leaving the ideal product. Although, Exo still have a clever marketing cloak that carefully masks the crickets, they have managed to reach the reaction outcome they want. And by bugging people about the benefits of insects, they have given the insect market the potential to take off with unprecedented potential.